Discussed or at least briefly mentioned in this post: 7 Books (Gathering Moss; Onigamiising; The Eerie Silence; Mr. Palomar; The Tanners; The Large Glass; and The Planets); 4 Movies (The Silences of the Palace; Werckmeister Harmonies; Tangerine; and The Babysitter); and 2 Documentaries (Strong Island; and Mountain).
1. Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Robin Wall Kimmerer is a Pottawatami grandmother and a scientist who has specialized in the study of mosses. All of these elements – her Indigenous worldview, her place in her family, and her scientific knowledge and methods – are brought to bear in this wonderful and gentle book about mosses and about how all forms of life connect and move in and out of each other, sometimes mirroring each other like fractals, and about how each relates to the other, exists for the other, meets the needs of the other, and is cared for by the other. I now find myself stopping to run my fingers over the cracks in sidewalks or stopping to examine the surfaces of old logs and wanting to carry a magnifying glass with me when I go hiking. This book bears witness to the beauty and fragility of the world around us even if it also makes clear that life, life itself in all kinds of forms, will not be something we can effect overly much even if we can upset the current arrangement of things (just as the Tardigrades about that). Recommended reading.
2. Onigamiising: Seasons of an Ojibwe Year by Linda Legarde Grover.
Onigamiising (which, in Anishinaabemowin, means “Place of the Small Portage”), is a series of small stories told by an Anishinaabeg elder, as she travels through the four seasons – Ziigwan, Niibin, Dagwaagin, and Biboon – but also travels through her family and history, sharing recipes and reflections on American efforts to annihilate Indigenous peoples as Indigenous peoples. Throughout, Linda Legarde Grover’s voice and style of writing expresses what she considers to be the four central Anishinaabe virtues – humility, respect, gratitude, and generosity. There is a lot of strength and gentle wisdom here, found not in complex theories or ten dollar words but in reflecting upon life as it is lived each day past, present, and future. I enjoyed this book. Onishishin.
3. The Eerie Silence: Searching for Ourselves in the Universe by Paul Davies.
Paul Davies is a theoretical physicist, cosmologist and astrobiologist who was also heavily involved with the SETI (i.e. Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute. In this book, he reflect upon the possibility (or lack thereof) of “intelligent life” existing (or having existed) elsewhere in the Universe and what the implications of that existence or lack of existence might be. I decided to take a look at this book because it was mentioned positively in David Toomey’s book about “weird life.” I was fascinated by Toomey’s discussion about the possibilities both of life existing in environments we don’t imagine as being able to host life and about the possibility of very weird forms of life (like silicon- rather than carbon-based life) and was also struck by his brief discussion of the possibility of a shadow biome. Because Davies talks more about this shadow biome idea in this book, I picked it up. Essentially, a shadow biome rests upon the hypothesis that, given the very tumultuous nature of the earth 3.5-4 billion years ago, life may have started up independently on more than one occasion and, if this were the case, perhaps we could find some kind of evidence of completely different evolutionary pathways for life. Or, even more tantalizing, perhaps there exist alongside of us, now, other forms of life that we do not detect because we have evolved to be attuned to certain things (certain light waves, certain sound waves, and so on) and they may have evolved in a completely different register. I find this idea fascinating and see no reason why this hypothesis should not be explored but Davies is mostly interested in it because he feels that life having more than one originary event or trajectory on earth would make it seem much more likely that life may have also evolved somewhere out there.
That said, I found this book as a whole to be a curious project. Davies spends most of his time talking about why the tests we are doing to look for life in space are misguided and then explaining why tests that might be more useful will never happen and then imagining a bunch of stuff that there is no possible way of testing. I was hoping for more science along the lines of what Toomey is on about (which really was kind of mind-blowing) but what I got was more like theoretical science fiction (which I I’ve always found to be kind of meh).
4. Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino.
When I first began reading theory and trying to understand “postmodernism,” I remember Mr. Palomar being referenced as a quintessential postmodern novel. It has been on my “to read” list since then although, I confess, I was worried it would read like something by Gass or Gaddis. Instead, much to my delight, I find that DeLillo is the “postmodern” novelist (with whom I am familiar) who bears the greatest stylistic similarity to Calvino. Reading this book filled me with delight and often caused me to laugh while walking down the sidewalk reading. I read sections of it aloud to Jessica. There is a deceptive simplicity to it both in terms of its content and in terms of its structure. It reminded me of a Mr. Men or Little Miss book of the kind I read as a kid (and read to my kids) only written not by an adult for children but by an elder for adults. Recommended reading.
5. The Tanners by Robert Walser.
I enjoy reading Walser not because of the stories he tells or even the characters he inhabits but because of how he goes about telling those stories and inhabiting those characters. He could write a book about nothing (and, it seems to me, this might well be what he does in each of his books), and I would chuckle my way through it and walk away feeling more affectionate than ever towards, well, everything. Here, one discovers the ordinary as romantic, the overlooked as dignified, the inevitable as acceptable, the serious as inconsequential, and the inconsequential as serious. Good times.
6. The Large Glass by Mario Bellatin.
When both Roberto Bolaño and Mario Vargas Llosa are praising an author then it may be worth taking a lot of what that author has written. This, at least, is what I thought when I came to Mario Bellatin whom Jorge Carrión also compared to Sebald. Plus, you know, he’s a Mexican Sufi who studied theology in Peru and film in Cuba and so that alone is enough to make me curious. Yet, despite all that praise, I struggled with this text . The story itself is a series of three “autobiographical” reflections (although Bellatin is certainly playing with what does and does not count as autobiography in ways much more flagrant than those deployed by Sebald or even James Fry), but, as with Sergio Chejfec’s work below, I had trouble getting into his voice. Maybe this is because I have been so enamoured by German literature and sentence structures that transitioning to Spanish literature is not easy. I’m not sure. Regardless, the stories contained in The Large Glass felt, to me, more like a toying with form and a demonstration of technical mastery and little else besides. Or, rather, when I compare this to Sebald or Walser – and I do think comparisons exist – this text strikes me as emotionless. It reminds me of people who talk smart because they know they can talk smart and not because they are particularly invested in anything they say. But that is just my first impression. I still want to consider this some more.
7. The Planets by Sergio Chejfec.
As with Bellatin, I struggled to acclimatize to Sergio Chejfec’s voice. But, unlike with Bellatin, once I did acclimatize a creeping sense of appreciation for this work built within me and came to a climax at the conclusion of the novel. Here, I think my reading habits worked against me. I tend to sneak in a lot of novel reading while moving in between other spaces and activities – walking to and from work, getting in a page or two while cooking dinner, walking to and from the grocery store, while rubbing Ruby’s back as she falls asleep, travelling on the bus, and so on – but Chejfec requires the full attention of his readers. This is not the kind of book one can read in a distracted manner. The text is too rich and the motifs Chejfec develops are as intricately woven as any work of theory I’ve read (actually, I’m currently reading Derrida’s Of Grammatology and I find it easier to read that instead of The Planets while walking, although I’m already pretty familiar with Derrida and his work so maybe that’s not a fair comparison). To be honest, I kind of want to read it again starting with the way I feel about it now instead of the way I felt about it for the first half. But this text (along with the film Werkmeister Harmonies, reviewed above), is a good example of why I struggle with texts that I find difficult. That struggle doesn’t always pay off, but when it does, the reward is worth the effort and the other failed attempts.
1. The Silences of the Palace (1994) directed by Moufida Tlatli.
“Only a woman could have made this movie,” I thought to myself halfway through. “The relationships between the women who compose the central characters and the insider look it gives the viewer into the all-female environments and interactions upon which it focuses, are simply too well done and feel too genuine (or honest) for a man to have created them.” And, sure enough, when I looked to see who the Director was, I discovered Moufida Tlatli, a Tunisian woman who, in 1994, produced a film that strikes me as one of the best pieces of feminist cinema produced in any era (and which far surpasses a lot of what we praise as feminism in Hollywood films – for example, it rivals Julia Ducournau’s Raw for the way in which it shatters and reverses the Bechdel-Wallace test). Men are far from being the central characters here and are far from being the central preoccupations or topics of conversation among the women who are the central characters. Men, almost exclusively, are nodes of wealth and power who seek to consume women – those whom they can seduce they will seduce, those whom they can convince to play along for some kind of material gain they will convince to play along for some kind of material gain but, those who will not be seduced and who will not play along will still end up like the others—fucked. Even the good men – from the son who cares more about his male friend than he cares about the life of his mother, to the husband whom the protagonist flees with at the end (although we know it is not the end since most of the film is structured as a flashback) – are never a source a salvation although they may be briefly misconstrued as such. Instead, life, as much as it is to be found in the context of ever shifting power structures where patriarchy remains constant, is found in the company of women with whom other women can laugh and sing and tease and banter and mourn and weep and care and be cared for. A wonderful film. Highly recommended.
2. Werckmeister Harmonies (2000) directed by Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky.
In order to see if I wanted to sit through Béla Tarr’s renowned but daunting (seven hour!) rendition of Sátántangó, I thought I’d check out this shorter film (thirty-nine shots spanning two hours and twenty-five minutes!), which is also based on a László Krasznahorkai novel (The Melancholy of Resistance) and which Krasznahorkai also helped to produce. The references to lengths of time are not irrelevant here – Tarr is much more interested in time than, say, stories and this film is only a story because stories are inescapably caught up with language and concepts and images and things that have beginnings and middles and endings even if those are only points on a film reel. In realtion to all of this, I found Mihály Vig’s soundtrack to be deeply moving and well-deployed. Werckmeister Harmonies is a film that crawls along until you realize that you are gasping. And that, I suppose, is one way of describing us. We crawl and we gasp – sometimes for air, sometimes because we are in pain, sometimes because we are in awe, and sometimes because it is all we can do, all we ever will do, the last thing of all to be done.
3. Tangerine (2015) directed by Sean Baker.
I tend to be skeptical about movies that are praised because of a certain gimmick – in this case, the fact that Sean Baker recorded this film on his iphone. However, because I wanted to prepare to watch Baker’s more recent movie, The Florida Project, and because I have been missing the company of the trans* sex workers with whom I used to kick it in Vancouver, I decided to sit down and watch Tangerine. The plot itself is ho-hum but what really makes this film are the two leads, played by trans actresses, Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriquez. They were phenomenal and captivating and brilliant and reminded me of some dear old friends. Their friendship and struggles and triumphs and solidarity in the face of oppression were completely on point. I loved them. I also thought James Ransome did a good job as the low-level pimp he portrayed. And Karran Karagulian’s character was also very well done. I think the presentation of that character, and his humanity as a regular guy living in a culture where his desires would never be validated or affirmed, did a good job of humanizing johns – many of whom are just average fellows. It’s also good to see a film involving sex work that doesn’t repeat the storyline of johns inflicting violence upon women (not to say that violence isn’t an occupational hazard of sex work — but a lot of that violence is related to the criminalization of sex work which isn’t usually shown in movies that show that violence). All of this, made me wonder if Baker had some direct personal experience with this world in order to be able to portray it in the way that he did. Because I’ve been involved in this world (to greater and lesser degrees) for many years, and I think he really captured something of it.
4. The Babysitter (2017) directed by McG.
Not for the faint of heart, the blood sprays and splatters and splashes in this one. It’s all intended in good fun, though, and you’ll probably find yourself laughing while screaming “AHHHH!” or “OH MY GOD” or whatever your go-to line is for situations like these. Given that I almost never enjoy or watch movies from the subgenre of horror this one is spoofing, I personally enjoyed the film quite a lot (although I thought the last third kind of dragged). It reminded me of The Cabin in the Woods only I don’t think it was nearly as clever (it was also less scary – and The Cabin in the Woods hardly qualifies as scary – and more ridiculously funny). Part of what allowed me to enjoy this was that none of the violence was sexualized (this is a major beef of mine with most films in the slasher subgenre and it is my primary reason for avoiding them). It also lacked the perverse sense of pleasure that a number of slasher movies have – i.e. the ways in which they really seem to delight in seeing people hurt and afraid and seeing all of that in as much hyper realistic detail as possible (it feels like people are really getting off on that shit and, again, that totally puts me off the subgenre). However, neither hyper-realism nor sexualization is an issue here. In fact, the closest we even come to nudity is the sociopathic and totally ripped (and naired) dude whose shirt, somewhat mysteriously as the protagonist points out, disappears early on. So, yeah, I like the way McG plays with the genre and wants to have a lot of fun and has the characters move in and out of their assigned stereotypical roles in order to banter and even mock the audiences expectations of them. Don’t worry too much about trying to make sense of it. A lot of it isn’t intended to make sense (and maybe this will sound absurd to others who have seen the film, given everything that happens, but, to me, the only time when I had to really check myself in this regard was when the frightened boy suddenly and inexplicably turned into someone very brave; but once I suspended my disbelief on that, everything else went down easy). I would also suggest avoiding falling into chasing the easter eggs or trying to pick up all the references to other horror films. Plenty are planted but, again, this ain’t no Cabin in the Woods (or Scream – maybe something along the lines of Home Alone is a better point of comparison) but they feel more like they’re there because, well, that’s what people writing this kind of horror movie do. There doesn’t seem to be much point to them other than that. And, for me, that’s okay because watching this movie let me turn my brain off and laugh and scream alongside of Jess as she laughed and screamed.
1. Strong Island (2017) directed by Yance Ford.
Strong Island emerges somewhere in between The Witness and 13th (with, perhaps, some of the filmmaking-as-family-therapy that we saw with Trey Edward Shults’ Krisha also thrown in). It is an intimate portrayal of the devastation that comes from losing a brother, son, loved one, and friend – a devastation that is only furthered because the person lost (the person murdered) was a young black man who was shot by a young white man and the justice system, from the prosecutor to the Grand Jury, failed to care, made it clear they didn’t care, didn’t even indict the man whom everyone knew was the murderer. There are many moments of heartbreak here but one that felt especially poignant to me was when the mother exclaimed, “I failed my children. I failed William. Because I taught him not to see colour – I taught him to see character instead. But I was wrong” (I am paraphrasing from memory here). Hearing a woman who was an outstanding citizen – a woman who escaped the Jim Crow South, who worked her way from being a teaching assistant to a Principal to creating her own school for inmates from Rikers Island – express this realization, one that surely calls into question her own life trajectory and core values – is very sad indeed. In the end, it seems, both her and her husband (who had a stroke the year after their son William was shot) die because they believed that things would work out well if they played by the rules. Because Ford shows how those who play by the rules never get the promised rewards. Justifiably, then, Ford imagines that his brother (Ford is a male although during his childhood others thought he was a girl) was killed by a man who “looks likes… every white man I’ve ever seen” a man who “looks like anybody, anyone, everyone. He’s everywhere. He looks like everywhere.” One cannot help but wonder if the grief and devastation Ford and his family experienced is the grief and devastation experienced by every black family in America.
Still, Ford puts lines out but never chases the politics or social analysis too deeply. For example, the contrast between how his brother was treated as the police left him to bleed out from a gunshot wound on the driveway of an auto shop, versus how emergency services cleared the Brooklyn bridge to rush an Assistant District Attorney to hospital after he was shot (and after Ford’s brother helped save him) is shown but the two aren’t paired together in the film. Ford, I think, trusts the viewers to make the connections on their own and if they don’t, well, Ford has already made it clear that he doesn’t care about viewers like that. Thus, while 13th presents an overview of systemic racism in America and while The Witness (another film directed by a brother trying to wrestle with the murder of his sibling) also focuses heavily on social issues (especially the role of the media in events like these), Strong Island remains more focused on the ongoing acts of grieving, searching, mourning, weeping, raging, self-doubting, moving on (or not), and surviving (or not) that accompany the loss of a loved one.
2. Mountain (2017) directed by Jennifer Peedom.
I gasped several times watching this film. The footage that HD-drones can capture of mountains and glaciers and cliff faces and ranges is absolutely amazing. The world is amazing. I am so glad to belong to it, to be a part of it, earth, and air, and water, and love. I think it is important for us to remember these things and engage in activities (whether that’s viewing a documentary like this or getting outside or meditating or praying or whatever it is for you) that bring these things to the fore of our consciousness. I’m glad I watched this. It was well timed for me.